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I’m not quite sure how longtime fans of Michel Rabagliati’s quasi-autobiographical Paul series will react after reading the first few pages of Paul at Home, the latest – and possibly last – adventure with the character. Those who’ve followed his exploits over the years have watched the character go through a litany of life experiences, trials and tribulations, and even a foray into live-action with 2015’s Paul à Québec (from The Song of Roland) with an engaging performance by François Létourneau as the titular Paul.
Much like Lynn Johnson’s For Better or For Worse comic strip, the characters in Rabagliati’s Paul series age — they marry, have children. They also die and get divorced. Unlike Johnson’s lovable strip, however, none of this happens chronologically. Though Paul at Home is the closest Rabagliati’s series has come to paralleling current-day events, the character is now too old and beset by his quirky personality for a lighthearted trip down nostalgia lane. This is Paul, for better or worse. In Paul at Home, it’s mostly worse.
Paul, 51, is bespectacled, balding, divorced and living alone in the house he purchased for his growing family during better times. He’s disheveled and haggard to the point he’s often mistaken for a senior citizen. Physically, he’s a mess, suffering at night from sleep apnea and his neck wrapped in a brace from years hunched over to design layouts.
His therapist tells him to meet people outside his routine, like at local coffee shops or giving online dating a chance…all disasters. His beloved daughter, Rosie, tells him she’s moving to England before Christmas. His ex-wife, Lucie, such a large part of earlier books, is seen mostly in shadow. Silhouettes are the constant presences in Paul’s life now, becoming their own characters, displaying the bleakness of single elders.
All that’s left is his dog, Cookie, and ailing mother, Aline, who lives by herself in an assisted-living facility. Even this arrangement is precarious; between her frequent medical tests and frank talks with his sister, Paul knows what’s coming but isn’t ready to face his future completely alone.
Paul may be older, but he’s still the same overly judgemental type he’s always been, refusing to buy storebrand soup because its typeface is ugly, or waxing poetic about a particular font because of its creator (“Too bad Gil [Sans] was such an asshole…”). He weeps over his beloved Highway Gothic font being replaced by a thinner, more legible model. A bus ride to a local comic convention makes it clear the world, especially Paul’s world, has moved on without his input as the other passengers don’t look (or sound) like him at all.
Even Rabagliati’s artwork feels sadder. In earlier graphic novels we see looser, buoyantly scratchy artwork heralding a fresh optimism that matched the character’s youthful ignorance. Even when tragedy struck, which it often did, there was still an element of hope that the unknown future would be worth all the trouble. In Paul at Home that future is finally here, and the artwork feels like a response in kind, almost clinical in its exactness and attention to detail.
Rabagliati isn’t above having a little fun, as there are moments of artistic playfulness — when he parallels Paul’s five stages of grief at the loss of both his mother and his marriage, or rendering trips to the dentist as vivisected tutorials. I suspect Rabagliati knows he’s asking a lot of his readers this time around, giving entire pages to single illustrations after some of the heavier events, which can feel like a mercy.
I’m certain Paul fans want to see where this story goes, and where it’s been. One scene has Paul at his mother’s apartment, commenting that with its store-bought art and decorations it feels sterile and anonymous. “You’d think the place was staged.” What follows is a mini biography of her life; one girl among thirteen siblings, Aline overcomes childhood abuse to marry, eventually establishing her own identity. Her “freedom” comes at a price, and we can’t help but look at the similarities between mother and son.
Through this montage we get caught up in select events that occurred between the various Paul graphic novels, filling in the blanks as yet another chapter in his story comes to a close. For a series well acquainted with death and loss, moments like these remind us that, regardless of how much individuality you manage to foster over the course of a well-lived life, all roads lead to the same conclusion. It’s only how one arrives there, and by what methods.
Nowhere is this more evident than with Paul’s next door neighbor, Tonio, 85 years old yet still vibrant, who creates a garden paradise in his little backyard plot while Paul’s same-sized area has decayed. “EVERYTHING here is dying”, he says, surveying his neglected backyard wasteland as if the symbolism couldn’t be more clear. Tonio has managed to be the one thing Paul chooses not to be – happy.
And yet, Paul at Home ends with the promise of optimism, another chance for renewal among the chaos and stagnation our aging hero has allowed to affect his life. The uncertainty in Paul’s outcome helps make Rabagliati’s series so relatable, bolstered by a fine translation from Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall, alongside its wonderful yet disarming artwork. The question if this is Paul’s final adventure is irrelevant as whether our problems are self-imposed or they unfold in a normal course of events. They are inescapable and unavoidable, like aging, death, and taxes.